Saturday, September 1, 2012

Foucault on Anti-Hegelianism

From Foucault's 1970 address at the College de France:
[O]ur age, whether through logic or epistemology, whether through Marx or through Nietzsche, is attempting to flee Hegel. But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Inside Every Faux Postmodern Theologian Is an Objectivist Struggling to Get Out

The credibility problem for "postmodern" thinkers has less to do with the original philosophers -- Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, etc. -- than the proponents of their thought that inhabit other departments, especially in English and Religious Studies. Postmodernism, after all, names no specific philosophical doctrine and references thinkers who sharply differ from one another (no sensible person would put Deleuze and Badiou in the same camp!). Too often, academics in other fields who lack the proper philosophical background purvey pseudo-philosophies more as a matter of personal style than intellectual commitment. This is how we get literature professors appealing to Derrida for the proposition that no one reading of a text is better than any other, when Derrida, of course, said no such thing. Every original thinker is burdened by adherents who are really no more than posers, of course, but the problem is particularly pronounced with recent continental philosophy, probably because most continental philosophers presume a sophisticated philosophical education their readers may not have. (For example, reading Heidegger without a thoroughgoing understanding of Aristotle is practically useless, and produces the distorted interpretations of Heidegger's work one sees in the case of Hubert Dreyfus.)

This practice of  peddling obscurantism as intellectual sophistication is often on display at the popular theological blog An und fur sich, which strives (very) hard to be edgy. With a tagline that includes the word "fuck," the blog desperately implores the viewer to notice how very edgy it is. (The word "fuck" on the internet: how daring is that!) The emphasis is on a "radical" style without the substance, the careful analysis, and detailed arguments by which one does more than simply pose as a radical.

A case in point is Adam Kotsko's recent post on abortion, which claims that the pro-life movement is populated either with outright misogynists or those too stupid to realize their position is misogynistic, because the claim that a fetus is a person "necessarily den[ies] the pregnant woman personhood." Those who would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest do so as a "token gesture," not out of a sincere belief. (Pro-lifers don't have sincere beliefs, don't you know, except for the really stupid ones.) "The pro-life position," Kotsko maintains, "takes an autonomous adult human being and makes her into the unconditional servant of another (ostensible) human being."

These are strong words, and one would expect them to be backed up with an argument more rigorous than the sort one finds on the posters at a Tea Party rally in Tennessee. But Kotsko's argument boils down to this: requiring a woman to carry a pregnancy to term denies the "autonomy" that makes her "fully human" and therefore makes her a "servant." The fetus, you see, differs from the mother by virtue of its dependence on her. Independence and autonomy distinguish human nature from the subhuman, the dependent.

Here one begins to suspect that Kotsko has plagiarized Ayn Rand's essay "On Living Death," which argued exactly the same point for exactly the same reason. "Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives."

But plagiarism, on second thought, seems unlikely: Rand's argument, however inadequate on its own grounds, offers a more comprehensive argument at points where Kotsko resorts to shrill assertion and the copious use of italics in place of argument. (There are only two paragraphs in Kotsko's whole post that do not use italics to indicate that Kotsko is very serious.) Where a philosopher would offer an argument to compel the assent of the reader, Kotsko offers bluster.

Given Kotsko's very serious charges against the pro-life movement, one might expect him to have done his due diligence on the abortion debate. But he does not reference a single scholarly argument against abortion. It's not clear he has ever read any academic arguments against abortion, such as has been offered by the likes of John Finnis. Remarkably, he had apparently never heard of Judith Jarvis Thomson's defense of abortion, which has got to be the most famous defense of abortion ever written. I think I read it in two classes before the end of my sophomore year of undergraduate studies. How one could enter the abortion fray without first reading the most discussed scholarly article on the topic is beyond me.

Kotsko's sheer recklessness aside, something must be said about his proffered anthropology. One would think, having apparently read the likes of Aristotle and Hegel, he would at least be circumspect enough not to offer an account of human nature that makes autonomy or independence paradigmatic for human nature, and that necessarily associates dependence with the subhuman. But Kotsko is similar to Rand not only in style but in substance. Human beings are autonomous and independent, and any obligations to aid the dependent so infringe on that freedom (which is at best abstract freedom, to borrow from Hegel) that mandatory assistance to the dependent constitutes "unconditional servitude."

This understanding of human nature as autonomous, independent, and even "isolatable" is a rather discreditable one. One doesn't need to have studied Hegel's Philosophy of Right or Alasdair MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals to know that the idea of freedom as autonomy is an empty one. Kotsko is wrong for the same reason Rand is wrong. We find our freedom, at least in part, in our duty to others. Subjective freedom, not only in the puerile formulations offered by Kotsko and Rand, but also the more sophisticated formulation of Kant, must be concretely instantiated. But everyone who has read anything on the subject should know this argument by heart, and I won't repeat what Hegel, MacIntyre, Taylor, Sandel, or Aristotle said here.

There are two points that can be learned from all this, however. The first point is this: if one makes wild claims that attribute views to one's opponents without any attempt to accurately represent one's opponents or offer an argument in support of your own position, one should not do so in a forum which allows others to point this out. Rather, one should employ a comment policy that insulates one from criticism. Kotsko has taken this point, having recently announced a "preferential option" against those who disagree with him, formalizing a policy that would delete comments that defend orthodox Christian positions against his criticisms. This should ensure that he will not be embarrassed by others pointing out how sloppy his reasoning is, at least on his own site.

The second point is more serious. If we adopt the putrid anthropology of Kotsko or Rand, which understands human freedom in terms of independence and autonomy, we have to be consistent. Fetuses are dependent on others, but so are the aged, the disabled, and the poor. If freedom is understood as autonomy (the simple sort of autonomy Kotsko invokes, not the sort one finds in Kant's moral doctrine or as a moment in Hegel's system) then any obligation to the needy, whether fetuses, the indigent, the sick, etc., are contrary to human freedom. The naive account of freedom Kotsko uses to attack the pro-life movement may be used just as easily to attack programs that aid the poor and the needy. Likewise, the conservative who appeals to the naive notion of freedom as simplistic autonomy to attack governmental programs that aid the poor undermines any argument he or she might make for laws restricting abortions. A free market has abortion clinics, and a society in which a mother has no legal obligation to her child can hardly impose an obligation on the wealthy to support the poor.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Richard Posner on Moral Theory

Richard Posner is widely hailed as one of the greatest living legal thinkers. This apparently does not carry over consistently to his thoughts on more philosophic questions. From his article in the Harvard Law Review entitled "The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory":

[M]orality is local. There are no interesting moral universals. There are tautological ones, such as "Murder is wrong," where "murder" means "wrongful killing," and there are a few rudimentary principles of social cooperation - such as "Don't lie all the time" or "Don't break promises without any reason" or "Don't kill your relatives or neighbors indiscriminately" - that may be common to all human societies. If one wants to call these rudimentary principles the universal moral law, fine; but as a practical matter, no moral code can be criticized by appealing to norms that are valid across cultures, norms to which the code of a particular culture is a better or a worse approximation. Those norms, the rudimentary principles of social cooperation that I have mentioned, are too abstract to serve as standards for moral judgment. Any meaningful moral realism is therefore out, and moral relativism (or rather a form of moral relativism, an important qualification to which I'll return shortly) is in. Relativism suggests an adaptationist conception of morality, in which morality is judged - nonmorally, in the way that a hammer might be judged well or poorly adapted to its function of hammering nails - by its contribution to the survival, or other goals, of a society.
This treatment, crucial to Posner's argument, betrays no more than a passing familiarity with the basics of traditional problems of ethics. Are we to suppose that someone like St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed in the Fall, believed that moral universals could be inferred from the uniform morality of fallen men? The point is rather that moral demands follow from the nature of reality, and that reality is common to all human beings; or again, that morality follows from the way human beings are structured, and insofar as all human beings share this essence, they share in common moral demands. It need not follow that all human beings actually live up to this standard, and, in fact, we might for many reasons expect them not to.

Natural law theory does propose that morality is natural to human beings, but this does not entail that human beings invariably are moral in a state of nature. This is the familiar error of confusing the Hobbesian concept of nature (what we might find were we to tromp out into the wild, or what happens when civilization breaks down) rather than the Aristotelian concept of nature (when a thing actualizes its potential in a way that manifests its essence). Nature in this sense is what a thing attains to, not what it is when social constructs are not present.

Posner's errors extend beyond his apparent unfamiliarity with the relevant literature. Posner chooses to formulate the prohibition against murder tautologically when there is no need to do so. For example, "one ought not intentionally kill another human being except in self-defense or the defense of others, or as part of a just war." And while for Posner, a Seventh Circuit judge and an academic, a universal prohibition against murder may not be particularly "interesting", one suspects the case might be different for those such as the Congolese, whose circumstances in the aftermath of a brutal civil war are significantly less comfortable and secure.

Finally, Posner critiques a sort of categorical moral universalism, and then concludes that "[a]ny meaningful moral realism is therefore out." However, there is a clear distinction in believing that certain moral rules hold universally, and believing in "moral realism." Aristotle, for instance, did not view ethics as categorical, but teleological; and he did not view moral propositions as being universal, but holding in the ordinary course of events. Aristotle was also a moral realist, in that one's actions effect the virtue in the soul. Given Aristotle's eminent and hugely influential place in ethical theory, one might expect Posner to be passingly familiar with him, or at least familiar with the distinction.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Manichean Problem

But [the Manicheans] believe as they do because they are ignorant how to interpret any passage except literally. If this is not so, let them show how it is just, in a literal sense, for the sins of the parents to be visited on the heads of the children, and on the children's children after them, to the third and fourth generation? We, however, do not understand such sayings in a literal sense, but as Ezekiel taught when he uttered his well-known "proverb", we inquire what is the inner meaning of the proverb.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fate and Belief

[If faith is not the result of free choice then] the entire peculiarity and difference of belief and unbelief will not fall under either praise or censure, if we reflect rightly, since there attaches to it the antecedent natural necessity proceeding from the Allmighty. And if we are pulled like inanimate things by the puppet-strings of natural powers, willingness and unwillingness, and impulse, which is the antecedent of both, are mere redundancies.
- Clement of Rome

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fate and Pantheism

For if they say that human actions come to pass by fate, they will maintain either that God is nothing else than the things which are ever turning, and alter, and dissolving into the same things, and will appear to have had a comprehension only of the things that are destructible, and to have looked on God Himself as emerging, both in part and in whole in every wickedness; or that neither vice nor virtue is anything; which is contrary to every sound idea, reason, and sense.

-Justin Martyr, Second Apology

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Initial Impasses in Aristotle's Metaphysics

In order to orient the inquiry of the Metaphysics, Aristotle begins with the traditional opinions about the causes of things as a whole, and draws out their inherent difficulties. This, in part, follows from his general dialectical method: he does not begin with first principles and deduce from them a universal philosophy, but begins with the traditional beliefs that he has inherited. In one sense, this method takes into account the "thrownness" of the philosopher; that is, the fact that the philosopher is always historically situated and does not have immediate access to objective truths from which he can begin his philosophy. To start in any other way covertly imports one's inescapable intellectual inheritance into the inquiry, and allows this inheritance to be acknowledged and addressed up front. This gives Aristotle's dialectic an advantage over any deductive metaphysics, in that his starting points need not be incontrovertible.

Aristotle examines the philosophy of those that went before him by drawing out their inherent tensions and contradictions. From these tensions, he establishes the problematic from which the Metaphysics will work. Aristotle must get some idea of what sort of thing metaphysics reveals; that is, of the nature of the metaphysical question. The immediate difficulty lies in the fact that one cannot know what metaphysics asks about without knowing the object of the metaphysical question. One must know the end before the beginning.

As an initial matter, the metaphysical question concerns the source of things. But is this source one or many? If there are irreducibly many sources of things (e.g., the four elements, or the four causes), then there is no metaphysical knowledge, but different kinds of knowledge for each kind of source. The sources can be irreducibly many either in kind or in number. If the sources are irreducibly many in kind, then thinghood is impossible, for thinghood implies a kind of unity which is grasped in thought when one grasps its cause. However, if the causes of the thing are multiple in kind, then no unity exists by which one might grasp the thing. Yet things present themselves to us in a kind of unity which we immediately and pre-reflectively grasp without trouble. Positing a multiplicity of sources different in kind is simply insufficient to explain everyday experience.

On the other hand, if the source of things are irreducibly many and differ in number, but not in kind (Aristotle calls these elements), then there will be nothing other than the elements. The sources would differ by virtue of their particularity alone (being this atom and not that one, for example), and if there were no causes higher than these elements, nothing could exist other than these elements. Syllabic sounds, for example, in order to come together and form words, have to take on the reality of a whole above and beyond the parts. This whole necessarily takes the form of an unified cause incompatible with an ontology that posits irreducibly many sources.

A multiplicity of causes precludes the unity that things possess, and fails as an explanation of ordinary experience. If, however, the cause of things is one (this would be called "oneness" or "being", and applies univocally to all things, the Parmenidean problem arises. To understand being in this way would be to understand being as a universal genus or category. "But", Aristotle says, "it is not possible for either oneness or being to be a single genus of things," for then there would be only one Being. Being, understood as a universal category, would rule out individual beings as illusions, because a species is differentiated within a genus by differentia outside the genus. "[I]t is not possible either to predicate the species within a genus of their own differentia, or to predicate the genus without its species of the differentia."

In the footnote to his translation, Joe Sachs explains it this way:

If we define doves as wild pigeons, the species is doves, the genus pigeons, and the differentia is being wild. If this is a sound definition, it cannot be true that (all) wild things are doves, or, the more important point here, that (all) wild things are pigeons. The reason is that all characteristics by which a genus is differentiated into the species are outside the genus.

The characteristics that differentiate genus into species must be outside the genus, for if the differentia were within the genus, then those characteristics would belong solely to the species or to the genus as a whole. In the first case, if only pigeons were wild things, then the terms "wild things" would have no meaning or extension other than "pigeon", and differentiating doves by the characteristic of wildness is simply to differentiate doves by the character of being doves. If the differentia existed only within the species, the only way the species could be differentiated from the genus would be by tautology (essentially saying a dove is different from other pigeons because it is a dove). In the second case, no differentia would separate doves from other pigeons, collapsing the species into the genus.

The basic problem: being, it seems, cannot be one because it abolishes all difference, and it cannot be manifold because it abolishes all unity. It is from this problematic, the apparent tension in being between the one and the many, that Aristotle's metaphysics takes its direction.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

St. Basil the Great on the Rich Young Ruler

From St. Basil's Sermon to the Rich:

For if [the rich young ruler's claims] were true, that [he had] kept from [his] youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to [himself], how has it come to [him], this abundance of money? For it takes wealth to care for the needy: a little paid out for the necessity of each person you take on, and all at once everything gets parceled out, and is spent upon them. Thus, the man who loves his neighbor as himself will have acquired no more than what his neighbor has; whereas you, visibly, have acquired a lot. Where has this come from? Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people? Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love: else long since you’d have taken care to be divorced from your money, if you had loved your neighbor.
One wonders what his judgment on the ethic of capitalism might look like.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Metaphor in Practice

"[The Israelites] waged war against a foreign nation. The text calls those combining against them Amalekites. For the first time the Israelites were drawn out fully armed in battle array... Moses, standing on a hilltop far away from the furor of battle, was looking up toward heaven with a friend stationed on either side of him.

"Then we hear from the history the following marvel. When Moses raised his hands to heaven, those under his command prevailed against their enemies, but when he let them down, the army began to give in to the foreigner's assault." St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (HarperSanFransisco, 2006) 17.

"Moses's holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law." Id, 75.

St. Gregory's bold assertion of the superiority of the non-literal exposition of the Law of the Old Testament over the "mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law" doubtless runs contrary to the instincts of some of the hermeneutic traditions arising after the Protestant Reformation. The literal exposition tends to lead to a more univocal meaning, regulated by the text itself, giving epistemological certainty as opposed to a method that would lead to a multiplicity of meanings that must be judged on the basis of extra-biblical criteria. If the Bible serves as the epistemological foundation of all things Christian, then the Christian would be desirous of finding a method that grants definite certainty, that can be clear enough to delineate those beliefs and practices which may be permitted, and those that may not be. St. Gregory's hermeneutic undermines this certainty.

Another objection may be lodged: the metaphorical meaning of a text abstracts away from any practical value, perhaps for the purpose of freeing the reader from the text's demands, and allowing the text to be reshaped to fit the reader's own purposes, clearing a way for man to usurp God's own word; or, to put it more simply, the metaphorical meaning requires only that one understand, not that one's life be conformed.

Both objections recklessly presuppose the existence of a set meaning that can be elicited from Scripture -- or any other text -- in isolation from both the context in which the text came to be and the context in which the text gets read; epistemological certainty belonging more to the former, and the accusation of mutinous abstraction going more to the latter. That meaning can be constituted and grasped without taking into account the contexts of significance in which the work was produced and in which it is read surely ignores the traditions one necessarily must rely on in understanding the texts (i.e., extra-biblical hermeneutic devices such as: "interpret the unclear passages by the clear ones"), and the obvious fact that reading Scripture itself without the intent to utilize other forms of tradition produces far less epistemological certainty than those who intentionally make extensive use of tradition in Biblical exposition, judging by the continual fragmentation of those who believe in the strict form of "sola scriptura" (a version not really held by most of the original Reformers) and the relative unity of those who adhere to a more traditional exposition.

One can, however, hold that tradition has its place in interpreting Scripture, yet nevertheless privilege literal readings over metaphorical readings--Luther and Calvin would more in this camp than the one above. The reason for St. Gregory's privilege does not, however, arise from a tendency towards the abstract, but rather from quite the opposite. The metaphorical reading of both the Law and histories of the Old Testament has its high place precisely because of its superior practical value.

St. Gregory's intention in, for example, his exposition of Moses' life does not seek simply to find those principles by which Moses lived in his time and place and, by understanding these reflectively, to instruct his readers to live by those same principles in their own time; Gregory wishes to instruct us how we may be raised by the daughter of a Pharaoh, be faced with a burning bush, ascend a mountain to see God's back, or again what it would mean to kill an Egyptian and flee to the desert, to turn water into blood, and to part the Red Sea. In his analysis, then, the events recorded in the history should not be used as fact patterns from which we might derive rules for living (and here, any fact pattern might do as well as another), but rather the history ought to be lived out by imitation; Gregory does not limit the language of participation to the metaphysical conception of the soul's union of God alone, he extends it to those great men of God which we would be well served to emulate. In a way, we must not only live out Moses' principles, but live his life by means of analogy.

How Gregory works this out with regard to the specific events in the history of Moses must be understood as one reads his Life of Moses; for our purposes, we need only grasp the general intent behind his exposition. He reads the history non-literally in order to determine how we are to fight the Amelikites when they no longer exist, or scale Mount Sinai after leading a nation out of Egypt. Gregory's use of metaphor arises not out of any lack of confidence in the relevance of the lives of those who lived long ago, but precisely in order to understand the relevance in each detail of such a life.

Looked at this way, the process of extracting from the history a rule that Moses lived by, even something as simple as "trust in God", makes the history more distant to its practical application and involves a greater process of abstraction than does living the history by analogizing one's own life to that of Moses. A metaphorical reading is not, therefore, more empty and abstract than a literal reading, but eminently more practical, and neither is a metaphorical reading, properly performed, an imposition of one's own intentions on the text and a freeing oneself of the text's demands; rather, it necessarily involves subjecting oneself to Scripture's demands, reforming one's intentions, and actually living out the history by way of analogy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Penal Soul

If the surplus power possessed by the king gives rise to the duplication of his body, has not the surplus power exercised on the subjected body of the condemned man given rise to another type of duplication? That of a 'non-corporeal', a 'soul', as Mably called it. The history of the [works] of the punitive power would then be a genealogy of the modern 'soul'. Rather than seeing this soul as the reactivated remnants of an ideology, one would see it as the present correlative of a certain technology of power over the body. It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished - and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are struck at a machine and observed for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of the soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint.

- Michel Foucault
What does it mean to say that the soul is born of punishment, supervision, and constraint? We might think of the soul as that activity in which a coherent identity gets formed. Often, this has been conceived as coming from within the inner potentiality of a human being, brought out successively through time as one's essence progressively manifests itself. However, the Aristotelian must also grant that any inner potentiality does not possess the power to manifest itself; rather, potency can only be brought into actuality by something already actual.

For the Christian tradition (and even for Aristotle), that actuality that calls the soul out from hidden potentiality and allows it to come into its own is God. God as pure act should not be thought of as one actual thing among others that comes alongside something such as the sole and "activates" it. God's immanence, especially as expressed in the doctrine of the imago Dei, exists "inside" the soul, bringing it to its own natural actuality from within.

Foucault's claim is quite different. The soul does not come from within, but from without. The soul is imposed by the principalities and powers of the world through acts of violence. The soul is that force exercised by power and the technics of repression. And rather than the soul enlivening the body, freeing it from inert materiality, the soul, as the product of the mechanics of power, imprisons the body.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Structure of Motion in Aristotle's Cosmological Argument

Aristotle does not limit motion to change of place, to growth and decay, to alteration, or the like; for motion, while it encompasses these things, cannot be thought of as one sort of motion that all other sorts of motion can be reduced to (i.e., motion cannot be alteration, while all other forms of motion can be reduced to alteration). Neither can the sorts of motion, added together, tell us what motion itself itself is -- any more than listing different virtues can answer the question of what virtue itself is -- and so Aristotle must give an account of motion that goes beyond listing different sorts of motion, or collapsing different sorts of motion into a single kind of motion; or to put it another way, Aristotle must explain motion as such.

In III:1 of the Physics, Aristotle defines motion as "the being-at-work-staying-itself of whatever is potentially, just as such" (201a10-20) and again as the "being-at-work-staying-itself of what is potentially, whenever, being fully at work, it is at work not as itself but just as movable" (201a15-30). The definition might be formulated in a more paradoxical (and troubling) way: motion is the activity of potentiality; and thus one might conclude Aristotle's definition directly contradicts itself, for actuality and potentiality ought to be opposed to one another--at least on the superficial reading.

How would a potentiality be at work while remaining as a potentiality? Isn't potentiality precisely that which has not yet been actualized? Aristotle clarifies his definition by saying that he does not mean that a particular potentiality for a particular being constitutes motion, else we might say that to be brown constitutes motion; rather, motion is the activity of potentiality as potentiality. To take an example, a light-skinned person who rarely spends time in the sun can be called potentially tan, and while "being tanned" obviously does not constitute motion in its essence, neither -- precisely speaking -- does the becoming tan from being light-skinned constitute motion itself (though it is a motion). What, in the process of becoming tanned, constitutes motion itself? In any particular motion, motion itself must be present, accessible to us on reflection, and since we know that motion is the activity of potency as potency, we can ask: how, when a light-skinned person becomes tanned, does motion manifest itself as an activity of potency?

Motion cannot be inextricably tied to any particular potentiality, but it must be related to potentiality as such; and so we say that motion manifests itself in the fact that, while one becomes tanned, being light-skinned slides from actuality into potentiality. By always claiming, as it were, one contrary, and giving the other contrary to actuality, potentiality always keeps something for itself; for contraries cannot both be actual at one time (a person cannot at the same time be both light-skinned and tanned). Motion is the activity of potentiality's maintenance of its own reserve, and this can only be possible with finite beings. Motion does not consist in being light skinned or in being tanned, but in necessarily only being one at the same time, while potentially the other; and one cannot help but note that even potentiality, considered in itself, exists as an actuality.

This brings us back to the previous insight that potentiality and actuality cannot be opposed to one another, that potentiality, in order to be at all, must be actual; yet, in spite of this, one cannot simply conflate potentiality with actuality--the two must be considered distinct, although connected. In order to see the distinction, we must return to the problematic definition that seems to threaten the distinction between actuality and potentiality: potentiality, to be potentiality, must be actualized in the structure of motion. This can be reformulated as: motion is potentiality being itself actually. Aristotle goes a step further, defining motion in explicitly contradictory terms as an "incomplete being complete" (257b8-10), but rather than creating an impasse, when Aristotle defines motion in its most problematic form, he opens the way to altering the nature of the problem. Motion itself may be called a complete way of being incomplete, an actuality that preserves potentiality, not because motion cannot ever be abstracted from things (though it must always exist in them), but rather because it constitutes the being of composite things. The definition of motion as an incomplete being complete forms a bridge, for it points in two directions: motion in itself as the active maintenance of a reserve of potentiality (the potential maintained being the incomplete), and motion as always making possible an actual, composite being. The two can only be separated in thought; for to be a composite being means to never be fully complete (i.e., fully actual), and to be a motion means to be completed only in the presence of a composite being that takes responsibility for the motion (as the first mover).

Motion's completeness is the composite being's incompleteness; this only says that motion finds its explanation in a being that takes responsibility for it, and the composite being only finds its being composite in the perpetual presence of the potentiality that motion preserves. Here a problem arises, for it seems as though I might be using "motion" equivocally: first as a particular motion, and second as motion itself (the structure of motion as motion). A particular motion, in order to be understood, requires a particular being to take responsibility for it (to be its first cause), but it does not seem as though composite being as such owes its being-composite to a particular motion (becoming tanned, changing location, and so on), but rather to motion as the preservation of potentiality. Note, however, that although motion finds its explanation only in a being that takes responsibility for motion, this does not immediately indicate that this being must be composite or that the motion is a particular motion. One can read Aristotle's definition of motion as creating a fissure in the ontic through which the ontological makes its appearance: particular motions may be explained in one way by reference to natural beings responsible for motion, while they may be explained in another way by motion as such; however, motion as such cannot be explained by particular motions, nor by reference to itself, but must be explained by its causes. Thus, the question of the cause of motion as such lies implicit in both particular motions and the structure of motion that makes composite beings possible. An important question arises at this juncture: does motion (not particular motions, but motion as such), which gives composite beings their being as composite, belong properly to the composite being itself, as an aspect of that being, or does it belong to something higher than the composite being itself, being given from another source (and it seems clear this source would be the cause of motion)? To put it a clearer way: can we call motion as motion prior to the composite beings in which motion constitutes their being as composite, or are composite beings ontologically prior to motion as motion? Can we call composite beings prior to their being, or must we call the being of composite beings ontologically prior? This line of questioning interrogates the possibility of the presence of the transcendent in the immanent as well as the basic character of their ontological relation. How Aristotle answers the question determines how he conceives of the ontological difference.

Aristotle begins his explanation of motion as such by first considering particular motions; considering the ontic first, to reach the ontological. The cause of motions must be explained by reference to a first mover that exists as a particular being, and so we would suspect that the question of the cause of motion itself might move along similar lines; as said above, motion cannot be explained by particular motions, and so its cause must lie in itself, or in an external cause. If the first cause of motion itself (first, of course, in the ontological, not temporal sense) turns out to be a composite being, then composite beings would be ontologically prior to motion itself, and this would be the case if motion exists simply as a feature of composite beings.

In order to determine whether the cause of motion as such can be understood to be ontologically determined by motion itself, Aristotle moves back to the consideration of particular motions so that he might determine whether individual motions encompass their causes (that is, whether the causes of motions are themselves moved by the motion they cause). Some things seem to be obviously moved by something else, such as when a man moves a rock with a stick. In this case, the first mover must be said to be the man, not the stick, for the man bears responsibility for the motion of the rock, and the stick serves merely as an instrument; further, the motion of the rock, though caused by the man, did not move the man himself (the motion of the man moving the rock must be distinguished from the motion of the rock itself). From this, we might be led to conclude that the mover causes the motion, but remains outside of that motion. However, in some cases, it seems as though the moved thing moves itself. The man who moved the rock perhaps looks about for a stick to move the rock with, and this motion seems to originate within the moved thing itself (in this case, the man). Aristotle regards animals as paradigmatic cases for beings, and so the seeming self-motion of animals poses a particular problem if he wishes to maintain that the mover causes the motion without being moved by it. In order to establish that the mover must be unmoved by the motion caused, Aristotle must show that a self-moved mover in some way must be unmoved by the motion.

A self-moved mover must either move itself as a whole, or some part of the self-moved mover must move the whole mover. However, if a whole moves a whole, then the distinction between mover and moved collapses, for that which bears responsibility for the motion also undergoes the motion, and the causing motion and being caused are not two separate things, but one in the same; and -- as Aristotle points out earlier -- if it is possible to collapse the distinction between mover and moved, then teaching and learning could be the same--this cannot be true. An even more basic (though similar) problem arises if one says a whole moves itself as a whole: in order for a whole to be moved, it must be first potentially movable, then brought into motion by an actuality; but if the whole is moves itself, then it must be both be both potentially and actually in the same way at the same time. Therefore, a whole cannot move itself as a whole.

It follows that in a self moved thing some part must move the whole, but that part can move the whole in two ways: either by being moved itself, or by remaining unmoved; but if the part moves itself with the motion it causes in the whole, then the part may itself be viewed as a self-moved mover, in which mover and moved must again be distinct. Thus, the self-moved part that moves the whole can itself be viewed as a whole that must also be divided into a part that moves and a part that is moved, and so the only way to avoid an infinite regress would be to identify a part that moves the whole, but is itself unmoved. Since the part that causes motion does so not in a temporal sense, but in an ontological sense wherein that part causes motion by being primarily responsible for it, it would be irrational to say that there is nothing responsible for a motion. Therefore, even in self-moved movers, an unmoved mover causes the motion, and so the cause of motion in all moved things itself remains beyond the motion caused. Taking this logic from the ontic to the ontological, it follows that the cause of motion as such cannot itself be determined by motion, but must be outside composite being. Therefore, the being of composite beings, motion, is ontologically dependent not upon composite beings themselves, but upon a being that is beyond potentiality, and is itself purely actual.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Irony of the Euthyphro

The irony of the Euthyphro as a whole consists in this: Euthyphro sought to defend his position that personal investment in justice was irrelevant, while being so personally invested in this argument that he was unable to give himself over to the demands of Socrates' philosophic dialectic.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Works of Art and Works of Nature

In our age of industrial technics we often find the distinction between natural things and man-made products blurred or erased; think, for instance, of how the project of artificial intelligence seeks to replicate a human mind -- a natural occurrence -- on computer hardware, as though the mind exists as an abstract form that can be freed from one physical instantiation and reconstituted in entirely different physical material. David Hume pointed out that Newton's design argument confused the cosmos with a mechanism, failing to consider that other analogies (such as that of an animal) might be even more appropriate, an error made more and more earnestly even by those who would later deny the design argument; and now society, living beings, and the cosmos as a whole suffer being conceived of as mechanisms that operate (or should operate) for maximal efficiency towards certain quantifiable results. However, it goes unquestioned -- and therefore, unproven -- whether the model of the machine can encompass the reality of living beings, or of society, or of the cosmos as a whole; and Aristotelian phenomenology makes a strong case against such a confusion, for the works of the artisan are ontologically distinct from the works of nature.

Aristotle gives an initial definition of natural things as those things that have an internal impulse towards motion, while stating that artifacts lack such an internal disposition:

For [the things of nature] has in itself a source of motion and rest, either in place, or by growth and shrinkage, or by alteration; but a bed or a cloak, or any other such kind of thing there is, in the respect in which it has happened upon each designation and to the extent that it is from art, has no innate impulse of change at all. (Physics 192b10-20)

At this juncture in Aristotle's investigation into nature one can safely think of motion as change generally, rather than as primarily locomotion; and so Aristotle characterizes as natural things which have an internal principle of change. Natural things change in a way appropriate to the sort of thing they are (for example, when a tree grows upward towards the sunlight, this change constitutes an expression of what it means to be a tree), so the internal principle of motion can be understood as the sort of motion that belongs properly to a thing by virtue of what it is. Some motions can be said to be natural and others unnatural: when a person lays down to sleep, the motion of laying down and the change from being awake to being asleep arises from within that person, and can be understood as an outward manifestation of that person and of human beings generally; however, if a person is knocked to the floor by something striking him, this motion is unnatural in that the striking thing imposes the motion from without.

Natural and unnatural motion can happen only to a natural thing, while a work of art (here understood in the broad sense of craftsmanship) does not have its own natural form of motion. The artifact undergoes change both from within and without: within from the material out of which the artisan formed it, and without from the design of the artisan. The work of the artisan necessarily constitutes a certain violence: a tree, formerly having its own nature and principle of growth, suffers being cut down and hewn into the form of a bed frame; the nature of being a bed-frame does not belong to the tree itself, but must be imposed from without, and the wood of the bed will not strive to maintain the integrity of the bed through time, but will decay as wood does and eventually return to the earth. Natural things are at work being and maintaining themselves in a way that incorporates the material of other things -- think of how when an animal eats an apple it destroys the nature of the apple and turns the material towards itself -- but in the case of natural things, it is the nature or form of the thing itself which recruits foreign material into its own nature; however, the artifact does not recruit material into its own way of maintaining itself, rather the artisan forces the material and the form together from the outside--artificially.

The internal principle of motion or change constitutes the means by which the being maintains itself in its being (Heidegger calls this "care"), and so the natural changes proper to a thing such as a tree maintain it in its being: the tree grows up from a seed, pushing through the ground, and opens itself up to the world as a tree. By shedding its leaves during the winter, growing them during the summer, reaching ever upwards, and dropping seeds down the the earth, the tree manifests itself as a tree, the tree is its own striving towards manifestation; it initiates its natural changes from within and expresses them outwardly, and in this activity has its being. An artifact suffers changes, for it has no internal principle of motion or change that allows it to outwardly express its inward possibilities, and so, every once in a while, it must be repaired or replaced; the artifact has no intrinsic way to be at work maintaining itself or striving towards its own expression, but only the natural tendencies of the things out of which it is constructed, and the efforts of the artisan to force and reinforce a functional structure upon it. A bed does not work at keeping its nature intact by actively looking after itself and recruiting new material into its active being, rather the wood rots and the artisan replaces it or makes another bed. Thus, if the being of a thing consists in the work to persist over time that it initiates from within itself, we can say that artifacts, in the purest sense, do not possess an authentic being, except insofar as they imitate natural things.

This difference between natural things and artificial things ought not be considered to be "merely" mental, having no hold in nature as it is in itself: the highest manifestation of each natural being occurs in its being understood by mind, for here the natural thing exists at its most purely actual; beings can be understood -- which simply means: brought to their highest actuality -- when one knows the "why" of their being (194b20-25). In order to further elucidate the ontological difference between natural beings and artifacts, we should consider that to which both sorts of things owe their being, and how they differ. When we inquire into the sources of a thing's being, we inquire into what bears responsibility for that thing, and we know in advance that what bears responsibility for the being of a natural thing must be, in some sense, the natural thing itself; for the natural thing's being is nothing other than its effort to persist and express itself over time, and a natural thing must (as we said above) initiate this activity from within. However, if we wish to inquire further to the responsibility for the thing's presence, we see that the thing can be said to be responsible for its being in several different ways.

In order for a thing to hold itself in being, it must have something to hold together and to recruit when it needs more material; when the tree acts on itself, we mean "tree" and "itself" in slightly different ways, for the tree in the primary sense is its being-at-work-staying-itself, while the tree in the second sense is that out of which the tree is made. The former acts upon the latter, and we call natural beings composite, having an active and a passive part. Motion, in its highest sense, is the preservation of the thing's potencies as such, and so motion guarantees a reserve of material for the thing to act upon.

Second, in order for a thing to hold itself in being, it must have something that it holds together, and this something must be intelligible; for example, the sheep dog chases after its charges and thereby maintains that by which one recognizes it as being a "sheep dog" and which all individual sheep dogs possess. What the natural being holds together and offer to the external world belongs to all things of its kind, and does not depend on an individual instantiation of itself; for example, if one sheep dog perishes, one can still recognize what distinguishes sheep dogs as sheep dogs. Aristotle calls this the look that one discloses in speech; Aristotle means by this formulation what occurs when one says "that looks like a sheep dog."

As a finite thing must have a beginning that we call coming-into-being, and this change must begin at a certain point, something must be responsible for initiating the coming into being of the thing. In order for a change to occur, something must cause it to occur, and in the case of the change of coming into being from not-being, the thing responsible cannot be the thing brought into being, for then it would precede itself; and therefore, the individual thing -- while it can be responsible for its changes once it exists -- cannot be responsible for its own coming into being. In works of art, we rightly call the craftsman responsible for the coming into being of the artifact, but in works of nature, the thing responsible can only be a thing of the same sort (a sheepdog must come into being from other sheepdogs); one can distinguish natural things from unnatural things by asking whether the thing was brought into being by the same sort of thing.

However, a thing undergoes other changes other than coming into being, and if these other changes are natural then they will be initiated from within the thing itself, rather than from without. We have already mentioned several marks of natural things -- that they initiate motion from within, that another thing of their own sort is responsible for their coming into being, that their form and matter belong to one another -- but all these should be drawn together under a final sort of responsibility: that wholeness towards which the thing directs its activity of maintaining itself through time. The three sorts of responsibility discussed above are likewise subordinate to this kind of responsibility, the actively self-maintained wholeness of the thing that Aristotle calls the for-the-sake-of-which; this can be seen when the sheepdog corrals the sheep, when it escapes from the powerful predator, when it eats--all of these aim towards the maintenance of the whole sheepdog under which are gathered all other aspects of the sheepdog.

This final aspect only natural things possess, for the responsibility for the presence of an artifact cannot be brought under this final cause, as it lacks the requisite unity: the material has no inherent desire to be brought together into the intelligible form of the artifact, and so the intelligible form does not belong to the matter that suffers to receive it; neither does that which is responsible for the coming into being of the artifact manifest the same intelligible form that he or she brings into being in the artifact; and certainly the artifact does not actively maintain the harmony of these aspects, directing them towards the wholeness that they help constitute. Aristotle calls this wholeness the nature of a thing, and it is precisely the presence of nature that determines works of nature in their being, and likewise it is precisely the lack of this nature that determines works of art in their being.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Metaphysical Naturalism Is a Crude Form of Idealism

Metaphysical naturalism, the view that the hard sciences possess a rightful claim over all other disciplines regarding the explication of the nature of reality, has spread from scientists through the popular culture and even into some quarters of philosophy. One easily forgives the scientist who overestimates the limits of his or her craft and one hardly faults the common person for being overawed by the accomplishments of the scientific enterprise, but philosophers – who ostensibly ought to be aware of the particular demands of metaphysical inquiry – ought not accept these claims so easily. After all, within the confines of modern science one cannot even make claims as to the metaphysical status of scientific theories, such as whether science treats of things in themselves or of a chain of causes conditioned by transcendental categories, because as soon as one takes up such questions, one has moved from the territory of science to that of philosophy. Therefore, the philosopher ought not simply accept the scientific picture of the world as an entirely true picture – though perhaps, to borrow Heidegger's distinction, the philosopher might accept the scientific picture as correct – but neither ought the philosopher dismiss it out of hand simply because it originated in the field of natural science rather than in the field of philosophy. In order to subject this sort of metaphysics to philosophical scrutiny, this essay will focus on an area in which the tension between metaphysical materialism and its opponents is particularly palpable: the question whether the mind is identical with the brain. I will argue that the metaphysical implications of identity theory have not necessarily been thoroughly thought out and lead to a sort of metaphysical dualism which is untenable, or else to the sort of idealism which would require the scientist to give up on his or her status as an empiricist.

To the metaphysical naturalist, science appears to promise fairly complete answers in most of the areas it has applied itself; however, the explanation of the mind in naturalistic terms is notoriously difficult, and might be seen as the last holdout for the opponents of materialism. As J. J. C. Smart puts it: “There does seem to be, so far as science is concerned, nothing in the world but increasingly complex arrangements of physical constituents. All except for one place: in consciousness.”(1) However, one must note that the mind ought not be considered one item (among a determinate number of other items) that resists – at the outset, at least – scientific explanation; rather, the activity of the mind functions as a necessary prerequisite for the scientific explanation of anything at all—scientific inquiry as such is a particular kind of mental process. So the optimism that science has explained, say, 99% of things in the universe and will therefore probably explain the other 1% that includes the mind overlooks the constitutive role mind plays in the scientific construction of the universe. It would be a mistake to suppose that the mind will be eventually explained just as scientists have explained everything else for the obvious reason that scientific inquiry is bound in a very peculiar fashion to the workings of the mind; the activity of the mind cannot be extirpated from the activity of scientific inquiry in a way that would allow mental activity to ever become a mere object of investigation. This does not mean that the mind cannot be explained in a naturalistic way, and so we can proceed through Smart's argument without error as long as we remain aware of the peculiar relation of the mind to scientific explanation and avoid the unreflective talk of “nomological danglers”.

Identity theory depends upon the distinction between the “is” of correlation and the “is” of identity; identity theorists do not wish merely to argue that mental states are correlated with brain states, but that mental states are identical with brain states. The weaker claim that whenever a person has a mental state, that person also has a brain state – an entirely reasonable claim – does not go far enough for Smart; the mental state must be identical with the brain state. To put it succinctly: “Sensations are nothing over and above brain processes.”(2)

As Smart notes, this immediately calls forth the obvious problem that one can talk about mental processes without knowing about brain processes, and so he must distinguish between what the common person means by “mental process” and what mental processes actually are. In fact, the identity theorist must say that what the common person actually refers to is a brain process insofar as he or she refers to anything at all. Both U. T. Place and Smart refer to the way in which lightning, rather than being thrown down from the heavens by Zeus as an ancient Greek might have thought, is (in the sense of identity, not merely correlation) the discharge of electricity; the way in which heat must be identified as molecular motion; or some other natural phenomena which readily admits to reduction to a scientific model. U. T. Place declares that the phrase “'consciousness is a process in the brain' in my view is neither self-contradictory nor self evident; it is a reasonable scientific hypothesis, in the way that the statement 'Lightning is a motion of electric charges' is a reasonable scientific hypothesis.”(3) Likewise, Smart remarks:
When I say that a sensation is a brain process or that lightning is an electrical discharge, I am using “is” in the sense of strict identity (just as in the – in this case necessary – proposition “7 is identical with the smallest prime number greater than 5.”) When I say that a sensation is a brain process or that lightning is an electrical discharge I do not mean just that the sensation is somehow spatially or temporally continuous with the brain process or that lightning is just spatially or temporally continuous with the discharge.

Both Place and Smart base their identity theory in the analogy that just as natural phenomena appear one way, scientists have actually discovered them to be something else entirely, and both presume that natural phenomena can be reduced to the corresponding scientific explanation, leaving nothing left over. Therefore, while one might agree that one aspect of lightning might be an electrical discharge, or that one aspect of mental activity might be the functioning of the brain, this does not go far enough for the identity theorists; just as lightning is electrical discharge and no more, so mental processes are brain functions and no more. At this point, one can begin to see the outlines of a wider metaphysical view of the world surfacing, which, under further analysis, might turn out to be quite suspect.

If identity theorists wish to offer the scientific model of the universe as an exhaustive explanation of the world,(4) then they propose a dualistic ontology which posits that things do not appear in everyday life in the way that they exist in reality—which signifies nothing else than a sort of revival of Kant's distinction between phenomenon and noumenon. Thus, the common man might say, “my feelings toward my pet goldfish sure don't feel like neurons firing in my head”, but who is he to know? After all, just as the true nature of lightning cannot be conveyed through the perceptual experience of lightning, neither does the apperception of affection reveal the ontological basis of mental states. This means that what appears can be devoid of what truly exists, that phenomenon can be devoid of noumenon. Thus, one can find within the ordinary apperceptual experience of affection absolutely nothing about the neurological process that supposedly constitutes the reality of the experience (remember, we aren't talking about physical processes which accompany mental processes, but physical processes and nothing else).

Ought we to consider the division between what appears and what exists absolute? We have established that we appercieve mental states without any hint of their supposed “true nature”, but perhaps mental states alone do not convey their true nature, perhaps the true nature of externally existing things does become accessible through their appearances. Taking Place's example of a cloud, we might say that although the ancients might have thought of clouds as fairly solid objects, one finds on closer examination – through the help of a hot air balloon – that clouds are not solid at all, but droplets of water. In this example, the true nature of the cloud gets revealed through the perceptual experience of clouds, and humans were formerly deceived (for the purposes of our story) because they didn't have the requisite technology to get the needed vantage point to reveal the true nature of the clouds. However a few problems present themselves. In the first case, why ought the closer appearance of clouds be privileged over the way they appear from the ground? What reason do we have for regarding the more accurate view of clouds as the one from the air? One answer that might be given: things appear most fully to human beings “within arm's reach”. I am not entirely satisfied by this answer, as I think a counter-argument might be made that the way in which clouds appear in the usual course of human activities ought to be considered the truer view; however, for the purpose of this discussion, we can accept the “arm's reach” explanation.

The second, more significant problem regarding the cloud example occurs when one says that the true nature of the cloud consists not in the small droplets I might catch in my fingers from within the hot air balloon (and therefore, the droplets I can feel and see), but in the accumulation of H20, suspended in the air by certain pressures, reacting to gravity in certain ways, and so on. Nothing in my perceptual experience of the water droplets forming on my hand gives me anything like the molecule H20, and if one wishes to say that the true nature of water can be exhausted in that molecular form, then the true nature of the cloud again exists nowhere in the perceptual experience of it. This suspicion only gets confirmed more thoroughly if we consider again the favorite example of identity theorists: lightning. If, while I am gliding my hand through the cloud before me while riding in my hot air balloon and trying in vain to somehow perceive two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, my hot air balloon gets struck by lightning, then not only do I not perceive lightning any better than from a distance – indeed, it seems as though I might have more clear view from a distance – but I don't see anything like an electrical discharge; instead I see a blinding flash, hear a crash, perhaps smell the fabric of my hot air balloon burning, and so on. Neither the perceptual experience of the cloud nor that of lightning gives me anything like H20 or electricity, and so one would expect to find this true of all natural phenomena. Indeed, if we were to get down to the basic constituents of the physical universe, we find quantum theory proposing things which cannot be observed (in principle) as basic to reality—and even claiming that the whole of things within space and time are held in being by super-spatial and super-temporal quantum strings vibrating. If this turns out to be true, the universe as a whole would have its true reality in something that can be neither perceived nor even imagined, but only modeled mathematically. Therefore, I think it safe to say that the identity theorist's metaphysics posits an absolute divide between appearances and reality, meaning that reality cannot become available through perception.

Though Place and Smart might maintain an absolute division between phenomenon and noumenon, one sees that they cannot regard the noumenal (as Kant did) as absolutely beyond knowledge, but rather precisely as that in which the true natures of things become known. This brings us to a peculiar turn: the kind of materialism which the identity theorists advocate – wherein the universe as it shows up in the hard sciences exhausts the whole of its reality – turns out to be a kind of idealism, in that reality is constituted by ideal models which cannot be given in perception, and while transcendental idealism does not regard either the pole of appearances or the pole of reality as more real than its opposite, identity theorists must deny any ontological status to appearance and instead maintain that scientific constructions exhaust the whole of the real. This is the full metaphysical consequence of declaring that lightning is electronic discharge and nothing else, that water is H20 and nothing else, and that mental processes are brain processes and nothing else. However, the identity theorist might protest that while hydrogen atoms cannot be perceived, brain processes can be perceived through the use of mental imaging equipment. In this case we must note that even if mental processes could be observed, the more basic (and therefore more real, on the materialist view) physical constituents still stand beyond the possibility of anything other than mathematical modeling. Secondly, and more importantly if we wish to maintain an absolute distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal, one does not really perceive brain processes when one views a CAT scan any more than one observes a duck when one sees the word “duck.” The image that the brain scan reveals stands in for the brain process; it represents it in the same way way atomic force microscopy generates an image that represents an atom. A process itself cannot be given in strictly sensuous experience any more than a cause could be (as Hume famously observed).

Although one might find it ironic that a philosophical position which purports to be empirical in fact entails a radically idealistic ontology that denies the reality of sensuous perception per se, this does not yet constitute an argument against identity theory. I would suppose that Smart or Place might be willing to give up on the strict claim that natural phenomena must be identified with the scientific explanation of that phenomena and nothing over and above that, since it leads rather obviously to the idealism I have been expounding, but of course I can't speak for them. And this would require them to give up identity theory. So I will end my formal argument here and – as I don't have space to make another rigorous argument – instead suggest some reasons why one should be very suspicious of identity theory's tacit ontology.

In order to convince a person that their perceptual experience can never convey reality, but instead can only stand in for ideal models beyond any possible perception, one would need – as the “man on the street” might say to the enthusiastic identity theorist – a damn good argument. In fact, I am suspicious that any argument could convince anyone that the way in which we see and encounter the world around us ought to be considered an illusion; the sheer force of the world's truth presses in through perception over against any attempt to deny it—indeed, the philosopher might need a good deal of peace and quiet to deny the reality of what threatens to distract him from his studies. Neither Smart nor Place offer a convincing argument to consider appearances void of reality, they simply assume this to be the case.

One way to disprove identity theory might consist in a phenomenological investigation which would lay out precisely how science arises as a function of the consciousness, and would lay out the ways in which this sort of consciousness depends on the “life-world” (as Husserl called it). At this point, one could examine whether or not science has – by virtue of the type of consciousness it is – the capacity to make metaphysical claims about the world, and one would perhaps demonstrate from this that science necessarily deals with constructs which have a lesser claim to reality than, for example, philosophical claims. In this way, one could show that metaphysical naturalism arises from a misunderstanding of the basic nature of science. Of course, fleshing out these arguments would have to take place in a further essay.

1.J. J. C. Smart, p. 60.
2. Smart, 62.
3. Place, 56.
4. As consistently as possible, I will use the term “universe” to refer to the scientific model of the world used by physics, and “world” to refer to the lived-in phenomenal world—by which I mean nothing more than the world as it ordinarily shows up for us in everyday life.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Derrida on Sacrifice and Modern Society

The Sacrifice of Isaac is an abomination in the eyes of all, and it should continue to be seen for what it is--atrocious, criminal, unforgivable; Kierkegaard insists on that. The ethical point of view must remain valid: Abraham is a murderer. However, is not the same spectacle of this murder, which seems untenable in the dense and rhythmic briefness of its theatrical moment, at the same time the most common event in the world? Is it not inscribed in the structure of our existence to the extent of no longer even constituting an event? It will be said that it would be most improbable for the sacrifice of Isaac to be repeated in our day; and it certainly seems that way. We can hardly imagine a father taking his son to be sacrificed on the top of the hill at Montmartre. If God didn't send a lamb as a substitute or an angel to hold back his arm, there would still be an upright prosecutor, preferable with an expertise in Middle Eastern violence, to accuse him of infanticide or first-degree murder; and if a psychiatrist who was both a little bit psychoanalysis and a little bit journalist were to declare that the father was "responsible", carrying on as if psychoanalysis had done nothing to upset the order of discourse on intention, conscience, good will, etc., the criminal father would have no chance of getting away with it. He might claim that the wholly Other ordered him to do it, and perhaps in secret (how would he know that?) in order to test his faith, but it would make no difference. Everything is organized to insure that this man would be condemned by any civilized society. On the other hand, the smooth functioning of such a society, the monotonous complacency of its discourses on morality, politics, and the law, and the very existence of rights (whether public, private, national, or international), are in no way perturbed by the fact that, because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other comparable inequities, that same "society" puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress only counts for a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children (those relatives or fellow humans that ethics or the discourse of the rights of man refers to) without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the other to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only does such a society participate in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it.

-Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


"The most sophisticated inventions are boring if they do not lead to an exacerbation of the Mystery concealed by what we discover, what is revealed to us. The powerful penetrating ability of the human mind uncovers with an undreamed-of insistence, yet what it uncovers is right away seized by the everyday and by understanding of being as in principle already fully uncovered and cleared, that understanding which at a stroke turns today's mystery into tomorrow's common gossip and triviality."

Jan Patocka, "Is Technological Civilization Decedant, and Why?"

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Imitation of the Divine In Aristotle

In order to gain knowledge of divine circularity in the simplest way, we will start with how human beings come to understand the divine, rather than how the divine understands itself. The question this essay takes up: to what extent is human participation in the divine contemplative? And, as a corollary, to what extent does the contemplative life exclude the “merely human” life (i.e., the political, familial, etc.). Lear formulates this problem by asserting that, according to Aristotle, the philosopher reaches a point where he must choose between the higher life of the divine and the lower life of the human. I will argue that this dilemma can and should be avoided in order to remain consistent with the general drift of Aristotle's thought, and that divine participation and political interaction can be mutually complementary.

The argument will proceed along the following lines: First, we will examine Aristotle's account of thinking as it relates to the actuality of form. Second, we will examine Aristotle's prime mover, with an emphasis on the account from the Metaphysics. After this we will be in a position to critique Lear's position about the impossibility of a life that is both political and contemplative. Aristotle's epistemology differs very importantly from post-Cartesian epistemology in that he does not sharply divide the thinker and the object of thought. Whereas dualism holds that the object of thought stands outside the mind and gets replicated within the inner space of the consciousness (and thereby reduces truth to the “accuracy” of the mental image to the external object), Aristotle instead holds that in reflective thought the thinking of an object and that object itself cannot be distinguished (De Anima II:1 413a4-7).

Aristotle's epistemological position depends on his ontology; the highest actuality of a thing lies in the thinking of it, rather than in “the thing itself” apart any apprehension of it.

Aristotle famously distinguishes between the form and matter of a substance, and the form generally corresponds to the thing's actuality, while the matter corresponds to the thing's potentiality. A substance, though it always shows the wholeness of its form in a way, nevertheless often fails to manifest it explicitly. If we think of the frog Lear uses as an example, we see that “Kermit” manifests his frog form to different degrees at different times. When Kermit was a tadpole his frog-nature was not as actual as it is when Kermit grows to be a full-grown adult frog; when Kermit sleeps, he does not actualize his frog-nature to the degree he does when he hops from lily pad to lily pad (Lear, 118). According to Aristotle, Kermit never fully actualizes his frog-form, although he possesses it (and has being by virtue of it) at all times, for Kermit cannot understand what it means to be a frog. However, this does not mean that frog-form cannot be fully actualized; frog-form gets most fully actualized in the active contemplation of what it means to be a frog. Kermit's frogness is potentially what the mind makes actual in the contemplation of the nature of frogs. This ought not be construed as saying that the frog-form is an inert potentiality which the mind actualizes, for form is actuality and mind does not act upon it so much as receive it. As Lear observes, since we cannot distinguish between the object of thought (frog-form) and the thinking of it, we can say that in the mind frog-form thinks itself—contemplation is the “self-understanding of the frog form!” (Lear 131). The highest actuality of a form is the contemplation of that form, and therefore mind cannot be said to be incidental to nature as a whole, but in some sense constitutive of it. One must take care here to avoid construing Aristotle as an idealist in the modern sense; for the mind which constitutes the world is not in any straightforward sense a human mind.

The contemplation carried out by human beings relies on perceptual, inner-worldly engagement with the things thought of. Thus, though active thinking brings out the full actuality of, for example, Kermit's frog-nature (or, probably more accurately, provides the space within which Kermit's frog-nature can fully express itself) human contemplation depends upon the things encountered in order that it might happen at all. However, human beings stand out from nature as the only sub-lunar beings who possess the ability to think. Aristotle regards this ability to think as not merely human, but as divine. If the being of things cannot be separated from their highest actuality, and the highest of actuality is thinking, then the being of things establishes itself in the activity of contemplation. But if contemplation belongs to human beings alone, and human beings depend so heavily on things in order to think them, Aristotle's ontology begins to appear quite frail.

Aristotle diverges from transcendental idealism in the sense that he does not believe reality to be divided into the phenomenal and the noumenal in such a way that mind must impose its processes upon the noumenal in order to make it intelligible as phenomena. Rather than attribute to the mind this kind of computational conversion process, Aristotle regards the reality of the things which we think of as already constituted in mind, and therefore human minds participate in a Mind which transcends the shortcomings of composite beings. Mind does constitute the reality of nature (as its full actuality) in a way which encompasses the whole of the cosmos, and this mind Aristotle calls the unmoved mover.

At this juncture we would do well to consider the relation of actuality to potentiality, for, as stated above, the full actuality of a substance is the contemplation of that substance, and so when Aristotle posits the unmoved mover he declares the being of the cosmos to be pure actuality. Put another way, the being of the cosmos cannot be separated from the source of its actuality—which is the unmoved mover. This view requires that actuality be ontologically primary to potency, and if this proves false, Aristotle's doctrine of the unmoved mover stands in immediate peril.

In Metaphysics Λ:6, Aristotle makes a brief argument for the primacy of actuality(1): “But surely if [potentiality takes precedence over actuality] there would be no beings at all, since it is possible to be capable of being and yet not be.” (1071b27-29) If the being of inner-worldly beings were constituted by potency, then these beings might exist or else they might not, but no reason accounts for their existence. This relies partly on the cosmological argument found in the eighth book of the Physics (258b26-259a8) which, briefly summarized, asserts that a series of ontologically contingent beings (that is, beings which admit potentiality) cannot be explained simply by explaining each thing in the series by the thing which comes before it in the series, and therefore that the series can only be explained by a pure actuality. Motion consists of the change in a substance from potentiality to actuality – for this argument to work it is rather essential that we not think of motion as the relative movement of extended substance in abstract space – and while one composite substance might cause another composite substance to be actualized in a certain way, this does not explain why anything has become actual in the first place. The whole infinite series of movers may as well not have been, and therefore even an infinite series of contingent things cannot explain the existence of the whole—which itself admits of potency. While an individual in the series of causes might be explained by the individual before it, this does absolutely nothing to explain why the series as a whole exists, when it might just as well not have. We might ask, with Leibniz, why not rather the nothing? Therefore, composite beings as well as the totality of composite beings, cannot account for their actuality, and so any account must include a necessary being(2); an account of existence as a whole presupposes the primacy of actuality.

The cosmological argument indicates something more basic concerning the nature of actuality and potentiality: that actuality cannot only be called prior to potentiality for purely a posteriori considerations (something exists rather than nothing), but also by virtue of what actuality and potentiality are. Thus, even for schools of thought, such as that represented in the Upanishads, which would not accept the basic tenets of Aristotelian physics which make his argument binding, if one only considers actuality (form) or potentiality (matter) it becomes evident that potentiality must depend on actuality if one hopes to have any sort of intelligible ontology. In the ontic sense, of course, actuality does depend in a way upon potentiality; in the case of tangible things, for example, we usually see that things must be able to be x before they actually become x. However, when we consider potentiality and actuality as such, we find that potentiality is only insofar as it is a kind of actuality—otherwise it would be nothing at all. David Bentley Hart summarizes the point nicely:

...While, in the realm of the ontic, the possible is in some sense a wellspring of the actual, this necessarily finite order requires a kind of conceptual inversion, which renders its logic infinite, if one is to think of being as such, for even possibility – whether one conceives of it as abstract forms or simply concealed “ecstasies” -- must first be... One must also recall that “necessary” here does not mean a first cause in the ontic sense, but the transcendent “possibility of possibility” (which must be infinite actuality). Anyway, even to think of the possibility as “higher” than actuality is covertly to think of it as actual... (3)
When one posits possibility as higher than actuality, error arises from the confusion in terms, because actuality has more being by virtue of what it means to be actual. The arguments above demonstrate this both a posteriori and a priori. Thus, we can now take the unmoved mover as the sheer actuality that acts as the source of being for all inner-worldly beings or – what is the same – the Mind in which the highest actuality of the forms gets constituted.

The foregoing treatment of thinking and form, actuality and potency, puts us in a position from which we can begin to attack the central question of the essay: to what extent can human participation in the divine be purely contemplative? Obviously, insofar as we think, we participate in the divine (our mind becomes like the divine Mind), but we might inquire more closely into how we participate as humans in the divine.

Perhaps the corollary to the thematic question will be best to deal with first. As mentioned above, Lear declares that “Man must be pulled in contrary directions: toward a political life within society and toward an anti-social life of contemplation,” and holds that Aristotle maintains the harmonious ethical life ought to be abandoned if possible for the higher, divine life of contemplation (Lear, 312). This argument seems to obscure a crucial difference between the the way in which the divine contemplates and the way in which human beings contemplate. God, not being a composite being, needs no engagement with things to begin thinking about them; rather, the intelligibility which renders things thinkable to humans gets constituted in God's thinking. Although when humans actualize their capacity to think they participate in the divine mind, they do not participate in the same way that God does—the thinking belongs entirely natural to God, while it does not belong entirely naturally to men. Humans can contemplate only what they encounter, and therefore, for humans, the importance of inner-worldly engagement with things cannot be ignored. Human beings certainly can exercise the contemplative life without company, while the social life is impossible under the same circumstances, but men cannot contemplate entirely apart from composite existence. A frog must at some point have been present for a human to contemplate what it means to be a frog, a tree must at some point have been present for a human to contemplate the form of a tree, and so on. It might be said that after a certain level of interaction with the objects of contemplation one no longer needs them and can go off to solitude to contemplate, and while this might be true of things, plants, and non-rational animals (which I am suspicious of), this cannot be said of human beings; for while it seems that whatever Kermit the frog can never exceed Kermit's frog-form – in other words, when one knows the form of frog, nothing remains left to know that Kermit himself might add – it seems that the human form remains so inexhaustible that a point will never be reached at which a finite mind will have achieved sufficient knowledge of the human form that it can leave to go off to solitude so that it might contemplate. Simply by virtue of human limitations the point Lear theorizes will inevitably be unreachable; knowing at least one form – the human form – cannot take place apart from the everyday engagement with particular substantiations of that form. This may not be a satisfactory answer, because it might be the case that the human form can be known by the solitary simply through his contemplation of the things around him—after all, the solitary still has himself. However, Aristotle's ontology maintains that a thing reaches the divine through its actuality as the particular kind of thing it is (for insofar as it manifests its form, it participates in the divine mind); therefore human beings participate in the divine insofar as they become more the kind of thing they are, and while this includes the rational faculty by which humans imitate God especially, one cannot ignore that this is one (especially privileged) aspect of the human form and that the animal and social aspects of man also fall within the human form—man is a political as well as a rational animal. Thus, if one intends to understand the human form by reflecting on himself, it seems that, in order for this self-reflection to capture the fullness of the human form, one must participate wholly in all aspects of what it means to be a human being—and this obviously must include the political dimension.

Now we have gained the position from which we can answer the original thematic question concerning the extent to which human participation in the divine is contemplative. The kind of motion which characterizes the divine is circular motion, because in circular motion there is no distinction in motion away from... and motion towards... Lear claims that the philosopher reaches a point where two different ways invite him in different directions, towards the social or political life or towards the solitary or contemplative life. Although I have argued these are not entirely mutually exclusive, it must be admitted that they still go in different directions; the one towards the purer divinity, the other towards the more ambiguous life possessed by a human being. However, one also should note that both of these are, in their own way, pathways to the divine by different routes. The more one becomes the kind of being one is, the closer one comes to pure actuality, and therefore engaging in animal and social life, though it may appear to be leading away from the divine, is an expression of the divine as actuality. The way which at first appears to be a more direct way to the divine in fact incorporates the ordinary types of human engagement. Despite the different directions the two pathways start out in, they meet in a sort of complimentary circularity, one less inherently stable than divine circularity, surely, but that is to be expected for a composite being, and so we can conclude that while contemplation may permeate the whole of human life and the participation of human life in the divine, it does not have to do so in a way that excludes the more mundane aspects of life, but instead takes them up into the context of a full, balanced human life.

1Aristotle makes the fuller argument in Book Θ, Chapter 8 of the Metaphysics.

2“Necessary being” must be taken in an analogical sense here; neither Mind as Aristotle imagines it nor God as the Christian tradition later imagines it can be construed as having “being” in a univocal sense with circumscribed beings.

3. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co. p. 224